Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Dr. Sun Yat-sen’: Difficult to parse

Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Dr. Sun Yat-sen’: Difficult to parse

Finale: the triumph of
Finale: the triumph of "Dr. Sun Yat-sen." Joseph Dennis (Dr. Sun) and Corinne Winters (Soong Ching-ling). (Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

SANTA FE, N.M., August 15, 2014 – A great deal of buzz surrounded the Santa Fe Opera’s American premiere production of composer Huang Ruo’s newish opera, “Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.” But its first performances on this side of the Pacific followed a strange, twisted, and arguably political path that began with the scheduling of its world premiere performances by the Hong Kong Opera where it opened and quickly closed in 2011.

Perhaps not coincidentally, 2011 just happened to be the 100th anniversary of the appointment of the opera’s eponymous hero as provisional president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of China. (His brief formal term in office commenced on January 1, 1912.) He is still regarded in many ways as the George Washington of today’s China.

Politics and a pair of difficult premieres

Raising funds for the revolution-secretly.
Raising funds for the revolution-secretly. Dr. Sun (Joseph Dennis), center; Charlie Soong (Gong Dong-Jian), far right. (Credit: Ken Howard)

Sun Yat-sen’s presidency effectively marked the end of the decaying Qing dynasty and the beginning of modern China, although civil strife ebbed and flowed through that vast and complex land for many years thereafter. His tumultuous political life indirectly led, through his young widow Soong Ching-ling, not only to the rise of Mao Zedong, but also to the separate political existence of Taiwan, which was the final refuge of Dr. Sun’s son-in-law, Chiang Kai-shek.

We note that in the current People’s Republic, the founding narrative of modern China remains firmly under the control of that country’s Communist Party apparatus. Perhaps for that reason, the Party seems to have been displeased with the acceptance by the Hong Kong Opera of this new operatic work—composed by a Chinese-American—that dealt with the Founding Father of modern China.

Whatever the real story—with limited information, we can only speculate—mysterious roadblocks were put in the way of the opera’s scheduled Hong Kong premiere.

The Hong Kong Opera’s artistic director, Warren Mok, somehow negotiated around these issues, and “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” was ultimately premiered by the company after both the scheduled premiere and subsequent performances had been arbitrarily canceled.

The work did receive its Hong Kong premiere was a version of the opera that made use only of Chinese instruments—not the combination of Chinese and Western instruments for which it had originally been scored.

Thus, the opera premiered in Santa Fe on July 26 and in three performances thereafter was arguably the production the composer and his librettist meant for it to be.

That said, even the Santa Fe Opera’s American premiere of the new work came close to being derailed. The Hong Kong Opera’s artistic director, Mr. Mok—also an internationally renowned tenor—was slated to perform the title role here. But—again for some unknown reason—he canceled his participation at the last moment and returned to China.

We’d observe, alas, that this opera’s apparent political troubles are not unique in the annals of opera history. For starters, just ask the ghost of Giuseppe Verdi about political censorship and you’ll get an earful. Fortunately, however, many “forbidden” operas end up getting produced after ingenious revisions. And ultimately, the public, not the politicians, get to make the final judgment.

With regard to the twisted path to “Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s” American premiere, although Santa Fe did lose the services of Mr. Mok, the show did go on, premiering on July 26 and running for an additional three performances, the last of which concluded on August 14.

One of the company’s young apprentice singers, Joseph Daniels, served as Mr. Mok’s understudy and had mastered the sung role of Dr. Sun—including the difficult task of sufficiently mastering the Chinese language libretto—and was able to step in to the role.

Western opera, eastern tradition

The Chinese people implore Dr. Sun (Joseph Dennis) to help them.
The Chinese people implore Dr. Sun (Joseph Dennis) to help them. (Credit: Ken Howard)

Making use of an intentional blending of Western and Chinese instrumentation and musical styles, Mr. Ruo’s opera focuses on the life and revolutionary times of its subject directly leading up to his brief presidency. Taken as a whole, the opera is more like a formal pageant than any Romantic or contemporary Western opera might be.

In addition to its unusual scoring, the opera further departs from Western tradition in three ways. First, its libretto by dramatist Candace Chong, is entirely in Chinese, employing both Mandarin and Cantonese dialects, something pretty much without precedent in Western opera.

Second, given that the Chinese language is dependent on “tones” or inflections, the vocals in the opera frequently employ a similar technique, as well as “slides” or bent tones, similar to what is described in avant-garde Western music as “quarter-tones.” This style of singing is still quite unfamiliar to Western ears.

Finally, although the subject matter of the opera revolves around identifiably contemporary personal and political history, its severely stylized theatrical presentation makes use of the highly formal movements, structures, and at times “stock” characters of traditional Chinese theater.

Some contemporary realism is built into the action, but for the most part, the opera’s characters remain somewhat two-dimensional types, linked more closely to Chinese traditions than to our own. That doesn’t make this dramatic choice invalid of course. It’s simply a cultural tradition that many of us haven’t had much opportunity to explore. One needs to be aware of this when evaluating what’s being seen and heard on stage.

The story and the performance

The unexpected focus of Mr. Ruo’s opera is romance, not politics—specifically, Sun Yat-sen’s marriage to a much younger woman he determines is his soul mate. Perhaps this is what the Chinese government had problems with, the primacy of the romantic over the political.

Charlie (Gong Dong-Jian) tries to stop Dr. Sun's marriage.
Charlie (Gong Dong-Jian) tries to stop Dr. Sun’s marriage to Charlie’s daughter Soong Ching-ling (Corinne Winters). (Credit: Ken Howard)

At any rate, amidst the noisy and violent backdrop of a seemingly endless revolution, punctuated by assassination threats against Dr. Yat-sen himself, the opera traces the central character’s more intimate personal story. After great deliberation, he is ultimately divorced from his long-time spouse, Lu Mu-zhen—a severely tradition wife who was long ago chosen for him and with whom he is not in love. He abandons her to marry Soong Ching-ling, the daughter of his closest friend and patron, Charlie Soong.

Unfortunately, Charlie—a bit of an operator himself—is shocked and offended at the new couple’s breach of protocol. He travels to Japan, where Sun Yat-sen is enduring one of his lengthy periods of exile at the home of the Umeyas, a Japanese couple who have taken him in. Confronting the couple, Charlie denounces them both, vowing to have nothing to do with them ever again.

In the end, both Dr. Sun and Soong Ching-ling triumph as he rises up to head the beginning of the new Chinese government, and they are celebrated with great ceremony in the opera’s grand finale.

The staging and the performance

As has been the case with all this season’s operas in Santa Fe, the staging of the opera was as evocative as it was fantastic. Taking various breaks and scene changes involved, Allen Moyer’s exotic main setting−a co-production with Vancouver Opera−was designed to resemble a gigantic, multi-tiered bamboo palace or fort, with the bulk of the action taking place in smaller, more mobile stages that appeared and disappeared within.

Dr. Sun (Joseph Dennis) addresses the people. (Credit: Ken Howard)
Dr. Sun (Joseph Dennis) addresses the people. (Credit: Ken Howard)

The setting enabled indoor and outdoor scenes to unfold almost seamlessly, providing as well space for the entrances and exits of dancers and mimes who wordlessly interpreted the passage of time and history.

The physical spaces took on further life when they were filled with these performers as well as with the chorus. Nearly all of them were attired in James Schuette’s period costuming that was cleverly designed to reflect not only social class but the evolving clothing styles that marked the march of the Chinese people from ancient, hidebound traditions and into the 20th century.

Visually, with regard to the staging, costuming, dancing and pageantry, this production was in many ways the epitome of grand opera indeed, right down to the final scene where a gigantic statue of the hero is rolled out at his moment of triumph, to great effect.

The opera’s score, however, left something to be desired, at least for this critic. While quite consciously intended to blend Western traditions with the East, Mr. Ruo’s Western palette seems largely limited to the constrained colors of minimalism and, to some extent, serialism—movements that have to a great extent limited the popularity of classical music, at least in the U.S., quite severely for nearly a century.

Thus, in an odd way, there is surprisingly little contrast in the cultural blending of sounds, an effect exacerbated by the massive and at times overwhelming use of percussion which comes across more bombastic than authentic. This is a romantic opera whose music scarcely betrays a hint of Romanticism.

That omission seems a bit strange in a work that tells the story of a major Chinese figure and his wife, both of whom were strongly influenced by U.S. democracy and the West and both of whom flourished during the late Romantic period of Western classical music, something they would both have been familiar with.

Most of the vocal music in this opera is considerably more influenced by Chinese tradition than by Western convention, likely making it sound more comfortable and familiar to Chinese audiences than to Western ones. The only passages that approached the feel of Western opera occurred at the opera’s midpoint during which Dr. Sun and Soong Ching-ling were beginning to develop intense feelings for one another.

That doesn’t mean that Mr. Ruo’s tilt toward Chinese musical tradition is somehow wrong. But it does mean that his musical language is less likely to charm an American audience.

Finale: the triumph of "Dr. Sun Yat-sen."
Finale: the triumph of “Dr. Sun Yat-sen.” Joseph Dennis (Dr. Sun) and Corinne Winters (Soong Ching-ling) as a massive statue of Dr. Sun is rolled forward on the stage. (Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

This issue also makes it somewhat difficult to evaluate the singers’ performances, given that they are singing music from a score that relies considerably on Chinese, rather than Western, vocal stylizations.

Even though I briefly studied Chinese in an experimental high school course many years ago, and even though I am familiar with the function and importance of tones for meaning, at least in spoken Mandarin, I can only go so far in assessing the singers’ performances while still retaining some credibility.

I would generally observe that the largely American cast did a remarkable job reasonably mastering both the pronunciation, the feeling and the singing of a language and a music rarely encountered by Western opera singers. However, I can’t speak with absolute authority about the absolute accuracy of either. (Any native speakers of Chinese who attended this production should feel free to chime in down in our comments section below.)

I’m sure the Chinese singers in the cast—Gong Dong-Jian (Charlie) and Chen Yeh-Yuan (Mr. Umeya)—were comfortable in their roles. Indeed they did seem more confident than the rest of the cast, particularly Gong Dong-Jian whose boisterous and imperious Charlie was, in many respects, the most strongly realized of all of them.

But the Americans held their own, at least musically, with Corinne Winters (Soong Ching-ling) and Joseph Dennis (Dr. Sun) making a particularly strong contribution.

Under any circumstances, a big hat tip is in order for Mr. Dennis. Sure, an understudy is supposed to know his or her part thoroughly, just in case. But preparation for this particular role, even as an understudy, was considerably above the norm, as it also called for learning an entirely unfamiliar vocal style to be sung in a language that bears little if any resemblance to Western tone and inflection. And this role is a substantial one.

Every understudy, of course, always dreams of that magic moment that can make an entire career. But this particular magic moment was more challenging than most, and Mr. Dennis is to be highly commended for a fine vocal effort in his difficult role and also for looking the part and coming across as strong, stable and dignified in the midst of revolutionary chaos.

For me, “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” scored high marks for its staging and pageantry as well as qualified high marks for its singing and traditional Chinese acting.

The unusually mixed orchestra also performed well under the direction of Carolyn Kuan, and the chorus turned in another fine performance as well.

As to the over all effect of this opera, however, it’s a mixed bag. Musically, it’s noisy and too dissonant and unfocused for my taste. It is, however, an unusually brave attempt to blend East with West, so perhaps it will need to have a few more performances in the West to gain some true perspective.


Rating: Mixed. Beautiful, authentic pageantry and revolutionary sweep, but with a score that is often turgid and difficult to parse.

“Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s” final Santa Fe Opera performance was on Thursday, August 14, 2014.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17